Dirk Needs Someone Like Duncan

By Mike Finger
Updated: May 5, 2007

SAN ANTONIO — They’re calling Dirk Nowitzki a choker, which isn’t entirely accurate. You can’t give a playoff series away when you never had control of it in the first place.

But people are right when they say Nowitzki is missing something, and it doesn’t have anything to do with heart or courage or better post moves. In the end, Nowitzki won’t win an NBA championship until he gets the same thing that was lacking by the last MVP to get humiliated this badly.

Like the Admiral, Nowitzki needs his own Tim Duncan.

If that sounds like a slight to either David Robinson or Nowitzki, it isn’t. It’s just that the list of men capable of carrying a team to a title is incredibly short, and neither Dirk nor David is on it. Do you realize that of the last 16 NBA championships, 15 were won by Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon or Duncan?

Robinson undoubtedly does. In 1995, he was the best player on the best team in the league, just like Nowitzki was this season. The Admiral was the MVP that year, and he had the privilege of picking up his trophy in between Olajuwon “Dream Shakes” during an embarrassing Western Conference finals.

This is where Dirk got lucky — by the time the NBA gets around to handing out this year’s award, he’ll already be on an island somewhere, with David Hasselhoff on his iPod to drown out the boos.

Unfortunately for Robinson, he had to claim his trophy in person. It was one of the lowlights of his career, and watching a few feet away was a teammate named Avery Johnson, who had no inkling then how close he’d come to living the whole thing over a dozen years later.

Johnson, now Nowitzki’s coach, made reference to that long-ago series late Thursday night, after his Dallas Mavericks were finally put out of their misery by Golden State. Johnson said losing to the Warriors was as tough as any defeat he’d endured since the Spurs were trounced by the Rockets in 1995, and somewhere Robinson probably was nodding along with him.

It looked bleak for the Admiral back then, just as it does for Nowitzki now. Robinson turned 30 in the summer of 1995 (Nowitzki will be 29 next month), and that season appeared at the time to be the best opportunity he’d ever get to win a championship.

He and Johnson couldn’t have foreseen the break they’d get two years later, when Robinson got hurt, the Spurs dropped into the lottery, and Duncan fell into their laps. Maybe a similar dose of good fortune will eventually find the Mavericks, either through free agency or a trade or another once-in-a-lifetime draft pick.

For now, though, Nowitzki has to face the same reality Robinson did 12 years ago — he can’t win a title by himself, and he can’t win one with the cast he currently has around him.

Nowitzki has come a long way in his career so far, and the regular season he helped Dallas put together was one of the best of all time. But Thursday night, the truth started to sink in.

“It really means nothing,” he said, almost as if he needed to say it out loud to believe it.

Some will say he’s to blame for letting it all go to waste, and there’s some truth to that. Against a smaller Golden State lineup not known for defense, Nowitzki settled for jumpers, lacked aggressiveness and shot just 2 for 13 from the field in Game 6. But he was getting double-teamed every time he touched the ball, even on the perimeter. So do his struggles reveal any more about him than they do of the teammates who couldn’t beat the rest of the Warriors four-on-three?

There’s probably enough blame to go around for everyone, just as there was when another talented 7-footer was being called “soft” and a “choker” after an equally humbling playoff exit a decade ago. Robinson bounced back, and chances are Nowitzki will, too.

Both were blessed with as much raw talent as anyone from their respective generations. Both have received more than their share of heat. And both are smart enough to learn from terrible experiences.

The only glaring difference between them is a couple of championship rings. And a sidekick from the Virgin Islands.